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Bold Humility: Mission in the Way of Jesus

By Aaron KauffmanAaron M. Kauffman

Is mission a thing of the past? Contemporary attitudes toward mission are much different than the ones that gave rise to Virginia Mennonite Missions one hundred years ago.

Back then, we had a simple trust in the gospel message and the courage to share that message at great personal cost. Today, the claim that Jesus is Lord offends our pluralistic sensibilities. That may be true for us, we think, but what about our neighbors of other religions, or no religion at all? We are fearful of being accused of “imposing” our religion on others.

Such fear is not entirely unfounded. The pages of church history include many stories of misguided mission. Too often, the sword has gone hand-in-hand with the Bible. Too often, Christians have looked down on other cultures rather than sought to learn from them. Too often, we’ve confused our traditions with the truth of the gospel, preventing the message of Jesus from taking root in authentic, contextually appropriate ways. Too often, we’ve used our money to create dependency rather than to build self-sufficiency.

Whenever we learn that our mission endeavors have been manipulative, arrogant, or insensitive, we must fall on our knees before God and our neighbors and say, “We’re sorry. How can we make it right?”

But is sharing the gospel inherently oppressive? Not if we follow the example of our crucified Lord.

Jesus was confident about the message God had given him. “The kingdom of God has come near,” he proclaimed. “Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15).

But Jesus was never coercive in his methods. “Do you want to get well?” he asked the disabled man lying near the pool of Bethesda (John 5:2-6). It was up to the man to respond.

Jesus boldly called people to acknowledge the God of Israel. To the Samaritan woman, he said, “You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22).

Yet Jesus also praised the faith of those outside his own Jewish culture. To the Roman centurion, he declared, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith” (Matt. 8:10).

Jesus wasn’t afraid to issue a costly call to obedience. “Whoever wants to be my disciple,” he warned, “must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).

However, Jesus also wasn’t averse to criticizing his own religious traditions. He admonished the Pharisees and teachers of the law, saying, “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions” (Mark 7:8).

Jesus instructed his disciples not to depend on their own provisions when they went out it in mission. “Take nothing for the journey—no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt” (Luke 9:3).

But he also challenged a mentality of scarcity. When his disciples were overwhelmed with the prospect of feeding the crowd before them, Jesus asked, “How many loaves do you have?” (Mark 6:38). He then proceeded to multiply their meager meal into a feast.

Mission in the way of Jesus combines boldness about the truth claims of the gospel with humility about our ability to live it out. We should never be ashamed to share the new life we have found in Jesus. But we should never assume we’ve understood all there is to know about life in God’s kingdom. We go out as proclaimers and learners at the same time.

That blend of boldness and humility is what I see when I look at the generations that have gone before us at VMMissions.

I see bold determination in Rhine and Anna Benner, who spent sixteen years of their lives with Appalachian folk in the rugged hills of West Virginia, losing five children in the process.

I see creative humility in Truman Brunk’s decision to adapt the Mennonite tradition of baptism by pouring in order to adjust to Jamaican expectation of baptism by immersion.

I see incredible courage in Lloyd and Sara Weaver, who left a lucrative business in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to be full-time gospel workers in Newport News, Virginia, crossing religious and cultural boundaries they had never encountered before.

I see remarkable humility in Richard Keeler’s decision to devote his medical career to serving the poorest of the poor in Trinidad — the leprous victims of Hansen’s disease.

The list could go on. The point is, we should measure our mission efforts not by their adherence to postmodern pluralism, but by their faithfulness to the way of Jesus. Too often we focus on the stories of failure and write off mission entirely. Our assessment of mission should consider not only the ways the church has missed the mark, but also the many faithful missionaries who have exemplified the bold humility of Jesus.

To return to the image of sailing, we must not let the shipwrecks of history deter our efforts to reach the far horizon of a healed humanity. When anchored in the truth of a Messiah whose outstretched arms beckon but never bully, we can confidently lift our sails to the wind of God’s Spirit, who is leading us to the heavenly city, where the One seated on the throne declares, “I am making everything new!” (Rev. 21:5).